Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on Wednesday, March 25.
The saga of Camp Jened, the summer camp for disabled teens that took off in the early 1970s, has enough appeal to consume an entire movie: The annual Catskills event provided ostracized youth with the opportunity to experience a sense of normalcy — earnest, unfettered human connections — not to mention all the sex and drugs. However, while that gathering provides an appealing starting point for “Crip Camp,” it’s only the first chapter of a much longer story.
Directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s inspiring look at the roots of the disability rights movement tracks several of those campers through the ages — including LeBrecht himself — as they mature into activists empowered by the prospects of finding their voice in an ambivalent society. While the hodgepodge of footage and talking heads sometimes struggles to encapsulate the sprawling history at its center, the filmmakers avoid taking the sentimental nature of the story for granted. The result is a rousing historical overview, doused in the nostalgia and the intimate experiences of the movement’s fiercest warriors.
Still, the “Crip Camp” in question provides a wondrous time capsule on which the rest of the story turns. Just down the road from Woodstock, the camp provided disabled teens with an opportunity for their own hippy utopia, and the bountiful footage shot by campers at the time captures virtually every facet of the experience. Beginning in 1971, the recollections from the likes of polio-stricken LeBrecht (spotted in archival clips as a long-haired ladies man) show the extent to which Camp Jened allowed its young residents to operate as if “there was no outside world.” That means charming acoustic jam sessions, boisterous talent shows, and a lot of hooking up. Even a sudden crabs outbreak generates more giddy smiles than discontent, the sense that simply encountering such ramifications only deepens their communal bond.
“Crip Camp” doesn’t linger on these proceedings long before moving onto the meat of its story, as the teens become young adults and camp’s ethos lead them to take action. The saga eventually settles on Judy Heumann, the civil rights advocate who later served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. The movie provides a breathless account of her big moment in 1977, leading a dramatic sit-in at the San Francisco Office of the U.S. Department of Heath, Education, and Welfare over the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which guaranteed certain inalienable rights to people with disabilities. The sit-in, which stretched across some 25 days and generated widespread media attention, unfolds in riveting detail as an alternately ferocious and teary-eyed Heumann makes the case for her cause, while others surrounding her chime in.
Decades later, the footage maintains the vibrant, urgency of its moment, which makes its resurrection here a form of activism itself. Recalling David France’s energizing ACT UP showcase “How to Survive a Plague,” Newnham and LeBrecht’s use of archival footage is their ace in the hole that allows the emotional weight of the past to come to life on its own terms. As the movie enters the early ’90s, and the creation of the American Disabilities Act, it makes an unassailable case for the lasting sociological impact of Camp Jened for the generations that followed it.
Heumann becomes becomes such an appealing centerpiece to “Crip Camp” that it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t exclusively center on her storied career. Instead, it turns into more of a scattershot portrait, careening off in a few different directions that might have been better suited for the miniseries treatment. That’s not to say that any of these stirring dramas lack appeal on their own terms — like the story of one woman who confronts her cerebral palsy by discovering her sexuality — but “Crip Camp” often struggles to fuse together its multifaceted approach as the characters progress through life.
Still, the filmmakers keep the energy up throughout, and the impact of Camp Jened provides a poignant centerpiece. Lacing together the story with ample rock music and a collage of sober-eyed recollections, the best moments of “Crip Camp” involve campers recalling the nuances of those formative years. The movie’s deepest insights emerge from the way the camp provided an alternate window into a society dominated by disabilities (complete with a troublesome hierarchy that found wheelchair-bound campers with polio ahead of those with CP simply simply because their disabilities were less visible).
With footage capturing profound mealtime discussions and playful asides alike, the movie not only proves the value of the camp but manages to turn its eager happy faces into a practical statement on the way inclusivity can stimulate future progress. Notably, Newnham and LeBrecht restrict the story to the perspectives of their disabled subjects (Larry Allison, the valiant camp director, has been relegated a supporting character throughout), so there’s never even the lingering possibility of devolving into a pity party. The movie doesn’t just celebrate Camp Jened; it hovers in the confines of its ethos.
The second documentary to carry the imprimatur of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions (following “American Factory” in 2019), “Crip Camp” embodies the 44th president’s activist-first mentality, the idea of grassroots organizing as the most effective means to force systemic change. Such idealism may seem precious in 2020, but “Crip Camp” turns its central struggles into an underdog story that doesn’t feel dated in the least. Many of those struggles continue, but “Crip Camp” proves some success stories only grow more powerful with age, and their ability to inspire action is timeless.
“Crip Camp” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Documentary Competition. Netflix will release it in March.